2015 words (8 minute read)

Chapter Three: Present Day

Chapter Three

Present day


It always amazed her how the Maine coast never smelled of fish. She breathed in deep as she walked, trying to catch any hint of it. Almost every coast Cora had visited whiffed a little briny, or in some cases like the inside of a rotting clam, but Maine’s ocean edge was the flavor of fresh to her. She’d grown up around it, living not far inland, so coming back for work had been a great excuse to expense a family visit, a happy distraction from work and the loaded stares from her superiors.

Though if she was honest with herself, she actually dreaded seeing her mother. Her mother would just know what had happened. She would just know that her advice was unrivaled, when all Cora would want is to avoid the topic of what had happened. Her last assignment in Africa would haunt her the rest of her life. 

The heat of shame when she thought of it mingled with the memories of the blistering heat of summer in Nigeria. She still preferred to layer up against a brisk north wind than to be constantly mopping sweat from every inch of skin, especially if she was in a containment situation. Quarantines for the types of diseases she was called in to investigate sometimes demanded a full “bunny suit” of protective gear, including a face mask that perpetually fogged up. As an investigative infectious disease epidemiologist, she tackled diseases that still needed names. Her five-year fellowship with the Center for Disease Control’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Taskforce had given her a chance to travel the world to investigate, halt, and often resolve outbreaks of diseases that almost never occurred in the United States. More often than not, the final culprit in her investigations was a bacteria or virus or parasite that was already known, but that was typically the beginning of the good news. Known diseases could be treated, or at the least their spread could be contained. It was the unfamiliar ones that worried her, for the sake of patients — often children — more frightened than they could find words to express, and parents who dared not speak their fears.

In those awful situations when an unusual new disease began to wreak havoc, she was given a chance to apply the skills learned in her PhD and CDC training. Nothing thrilled her more than a good medical mystery, so she eagerly anticipated the challenge of this assignment in Sealport, Maine. Two patients, a pair of teenage males, had fallen ill and several consulting physicians were stumped on how to treat their infection. It would be Dr. Cora Killigrew’s last case of her CDC fellowship, which would expire at the close of fall, then she would fall back on teaching until she found her next career. Bowdoin had invited her to be a guest lecturer for a semester, and she’d found a small rental house to live in so that her loft in Atlanta could be sold by her realtor.

Bowdoin would be a nice place to lick her wounds. Her college time had always been a warm respite for her mind when work was stressful, a period where she had excelled and learned to be the driven and perfect researcher she wanted to be seen as. Not the dirty, sweaty heap of shame and professional misconduct that had walked out of a Nigerian prison only a couple of weeks ago.

At thirty-one, Cora was weary of travel, and her last assignment abroad had soured her belief in the impact she was really making. West Africa was a place of great beauty and proud people. It was also a hotbed of ancient tribal beliefs that could make communities turn on their own when infections broke out. Though caused by a pathogen for which vaccines were available, tuberculosis could grab hold in the lungs of a patient and embed itself for life, creating little walls around its location that were sometimes impenetrable to the drugs she had to offer. Furthermore, tuberculosis was rapidly showing resistance to many available drugs. But while Cora believed that hurdle would be overcome by dedicated researchers, it was the reaction of the poor and undereducated mindsets that she feared could never be solved. 

In Nigeria where she had spent her summer focusing on tuberculosis vaccination levels, a few religious leaders had become festering sources of social rot. The idea of “witchcraft” in African culture still could dig tenacious fingers into people’s superstitions as surely as the witch hysteria that had gripped Europe and the nascent American colonies three hundred years earlier. Much like the insulated tuberculosis in the lungs of patients, a tight wall enclosed the minds of locals who feared the threats they didn’t understand. Where Cora had been stationed, children became the target of their phobias. Infants, toddlers, even teenagers who showed signs of recurring fever or weakness — hallmark symptoms of tuberculosis — were stigmatized, then ostracized, as “bewitched.” Ultimately many children were orphaned and often abused.

Prickly tears stung her eyelids. She tried to focus on the fresh cold of the air, the pretty lichens growing on the granite outcroppings. She tried not to think of the children still dying, bleeding, hurt and threatened by fearful and ignorant people. When she thought of it too much, her heart would physically ache. For her mistake of trying to protect such children from abuse, she had been arrested, jailed, accused of witchcraft and charged with assault. Cora was stripped of her governmentally approved post. After a couple of weeks in a small and dirty prison, the charges were dismissed, bribes quietly accepted, and she had happily taken a plane back to Atlanta for a stern lecture from her bosses. The CDC had instructed Cora to allow another epidemiologist to replace her.

The experience had been less harrowing than depressing. Her choice to become an epidemiologist required years of dedication and hard study, worth it to her to help others through her interest in diseases. She’d worked so long to become marble-hard Cora. And though she didn’t like to dwell on it out loud, she always felt her gender and appearance had done her as much harm as help. Most of her mentors had thought she was pretty, therefore less intelligent, than other students or fellows on their NTD team. She always managed to convince them otherwise, but only because she had stuck to every rule, memorized every guideline, and studied until her eyes ached to be the first person with the correct answer, the last person to leave the office each night.

Africa had marked the first time in her life that she’d been in real trouble, perhaps the first time in her life that an authority figure had chastised her. It was certainly her first arrest, a humiliation unlike any before. 

They had told her she was lucky her actions hadn’t led to her quiet disappearance into a Nigerian prison from which she would never be released. Her superiors had advised, in no uncertain terms, that Cora’s job was not to fight social injustice; her job was to battle infectious diseases.

“If you want to be a UN peacekeeper, I’ll write you a glowing recommendation and walk you right the hell out of these unbiased headquarters,” her director, Dr. Ifans, had barked at her in his clipped British accent. “That stunt cost the U.S. government thousands of dollars in bribes to get you out. Really, Dr. Killigrew, what in the bloody hell were you thinking?”

She had held her chin high, still, even when seated he towered over her. Her mind raced for the appropriate response, but honesty was her default.

“I wasn’t thinking. It was an emotional reaction. Instinctive.”

“Instinctive? If you want to protect abandoned children, you’re cultivating the instincts for an orphanage headmistress, not a CDC fellow. The only reason you’re not sacked today is your stellar record of playing inside the lines. Hell, you’re the best rule follower I’ve ever seen.” He widened his eyes at her and grumbled, “You’re the only one of our team who refuses to expense your coffee. Puts me in a damned untenable position!”

“The guidelines do state that mind-altering substances are not to be expensed.” Her utterance was barely audible.

He rolled his eyes, stroked his goatee in irritation.

“You are the very last person I would have expected to make such a monumental error in judgment. The only part of you that isn’t laced straighter than a Victorian schoolmarm is that necklace you never remove. I’m quite impressed that it survived your interrogation and incarceration.”

Uncomfortable, Cora straightened the collar of her starched oxford button-down so it hid the necklace, and tried to steer the conversation toward her future.

“I’m so proud to be a CDC investigator, Dr. Ifans, and you’ve provided excellent guidance throughout my tenure. I will appreciate any words of wisdom you can offer after this...this unfortunate interlude.”

“My guidance to you would be to polish your resume and hope that search engines can’t find local news on Nigerian arrest warrants.”

She decided not to ask for her fellowship to be renewed.

Her parents were getting a little older, and the idea of being closer to them appealed in a way it formerly had not. She was their only child. They had been a close family growing up, even if she and her mother didn’t always perceive the world similarly. Despite her mother’s absurd insistence on believing the healing properties of rocks and chakras, she was looking forward to meals cooked with the fresh herbs her mother cultivated, and the handy help of an engineer father who never met a home maintenance problem he couldn’t first make worse and then solve.

Luckily, coastal Maine was more beautiful than she recalled. Its travel posters always had boasted rocky coasts and pristine white lighthouses. Brunswick, where she had gone to college, was a veritable picket-fence-lined Rockwell painting. She had forgotten how at home those coasts and lighthouses made her feel. After arriving late yesterday and driving through the small town of Sealport, and now walking along a trail promising lighthouse views, Cora already longed to buy a house as old as the one she’d rented. Just a two-room cedar shingled clapboard cottage, its charm and quiet were a balm to ears inured to the loud traffic outside her downtown Atlanta loft.

Always a sucker for a historical marker, she stopped walking at the sign that explained the lighthouse’s history.

The Sealport Sound Lighthouse is 72 feet tall, with an exterior base diameter of 51 feet. The lighthouse as it currently stands was constructed in 1875, but an earlier lighthouse preceded it which was believed to date to the early 1700s. Originally, it was likely not more than a stone house topped by a lamp, and was only a rubble of rocks when the current Sealport Lighthouse was constructed. Four different keepers served at the lighthouse with their wives and children, the last retiring in 1951 when the Fresnel lens lamp power was replaced with an automated light source which the U.S. Coast Guard checked monthly. The Coast Guard later abandoned the property, as it did many lighthouses whose structures outlasted their usefulness, and leased it permanently to the town of Sealport to maintain at their discretion.

Ahead of her, the land narrowed to the point promised on the trail’s description in the brochure left by her landlady. She could already see the lighthouse, a gray and red tower on the horizon, on the tiny wooded island marking entrance to the sound. Worth a closer look...but not too close. The point was tall, a cliff probably forty feet from the rocky beach below it, and her fear of heights still limited her enjoyment of such views.

Next Chapter: Chapter Four: Present Day